To cherish his world and relish the characters who populate it is the ideal attitude for reviving Chekhov's plays. The new production of ''Three Sisters,'' at the Manhattan Theater Club, more than approximates the ideal. Under Lynne Meadow's direction, an exceptional cast responds to the poignant humanity of the drama - its comic, tragic, and tragi-comic elements.
The performance moves fluidly through the leisurely unfolding of events and destinies as Olga, Masha, and Irina (Lisa Barnes, Dianne Wiest, and Mia Dillon) watch their hopes of escaping provincial Russia for Moscow dwindle and vanish. The four-year span of action begins with the sentimental gaiety of Irina's name day and ends as the sisters embrace one another before going their separate ways. It is a moment of anguish but also of resignation and gallantry.
The performance as a whole combines the spontaneity of fresh attitudes with a decent respect for the work's origins and values. Jean-Claude van Itallie's new English version seems on the whole to contribute positively to the overall effect. The trio of devoted Prozorov sisters is sharply differentiated by Miss Barnes as the spinsterish schoolteacher, Olga; Miss Wiest as the neurotic Masha, married to a local educator; and Miss Dillon as the delicately jeune fille Irina , who grows as she learns.
The revival is especially fortunate in the Vershinin of Sam Waterston. As Mr. Waterston plays him, the philosophical officer emerges with his colors flying and his vision of a better future unshaken. The bitter heartbreak of his intense love affair with Masha is movingly conveyed by Mr. Waterston and Miss Wiest. The strengths of the performance include Stephen McHattie's quietly sinister Solyony and Bob Balaban's pedantic Tuzenbach, the baron whom Solyony kills in a duel shortly after Irina has accepted his proposal of marriage.
Jeff Daniels's Andrie, the wastrel weakling brother of the Prozorov family, not only disappoints his sisters' cherished hopes for his brilliant academic career; he is also easy prey for the upstart Natasha (Christine Ebersole), the fiancee who becomes his domineering and unfaithful wife. Among the other principals in a generally admirable cast are Jack Gilford as the cynical army doctor, Baxter Harris as Masha's well-meaning bumbler of a husband, and Jerome Collamore and Margaret Barker as a pair of ancient endearing Chekhovian retainers. No one in the company is more adept than these elders at the art of investing with a sense of immediacy a remote Chekhovian time and place.
The handsome and gracefuly proportioned Manhattan Theater Club production was designed by Santo Loquasto (scenery), Dunya Ramicova (costumes), and Pat Collins (lighting).